Saturday, January 16, 2021

In Minecraft’s Dream SMP, All the Server’s a Stage

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On the morning of the Doomsday War, president Tubbo surveyed the grassy hills of his domain, L’Manberg. His second-in-command, TommyInnit, rested beside him on a bench, nodding stoically. “Listen,” TommyInnit began, pausing dramatically. “I know you had to exile me.”

Gesturing with their Lego-like avatars, TommyInnit and Tubbo were winding up tension in a Macchiavellian political drama that has unfolded over the past year in Minecraft. Last week, over 1 million people tuned in to watch live. TommyInnit said they’d leave the past behind them; he wasn’t mad anymore. L’Manberg’s future was in jeopardy. “It’s got to be me and you versus Dream, just like it always has been,” said TommyInnit.

Dream is the owner of the Dream SMP server, since May the home of a virtual world built whole-cloth by dozens of characters navigating intrigue and betrayal, with arcs and storylines more unpredictable than any reality television. Video games aren’t just pop culture, but material for its creation. And out of that knowledge, a new theatrical tradition has emerged—gunky and psychedelic and stupid and random in that “lol so randOm” way only the internet can be. Some of the most popular online video games have become stages for live theater, broadcast to millions over Twitch and YouTube.

That includes Minecraft, part game and part digital sandbox. It’s like if the imagined dramas kids invented around their Lego sets were manifest and infinitely malleable. Blocks and blocks of colored terrain form perfect replicas of the Spirited Away universe or Game of Thrones’ King’s Landing. Building is the base skill, but there is also a Survival mode, in which players can collect items, craft tools, and fight creatures or each other.

Dream SMP is just that: The player Dream’s survival multiplayer server, where top Minecraft celebrities have constructed an ongoing, mostly improvised narrative over dozens of combined hours of livestreaming. On Twitch, the participants separately go live on their own channels to further the fictional drama through their unique perspectives for their millions of subscribers. Their fans have assembled Thucydidean wikis describing each and every conflict: the BT period (Before TommyInnit), the controversial election between the So We Are Gamers (SWAG2020) and Politicians of Gaming (POG2020) parties, the Second Pet War, right on to Doomsday.

“Stories are usually told in a more traditional way in television, movies, and musicals. What happens here is unique,” says Dream SMP’s Quackity. “To a lot of people, Minecraft is a game where people mine and gather resources. We’ve legitimized the fact that we can tell very interesting stories through video games.”

Dream SMP has a small and exclusive writers room. It’s on Discord. The personalities making up the storyline meet secretly in voice channels to sketch out general plot points: an election, maybe, or a new building. Written declarations of war (“Sometimes you just gotta kill some people sometimes yaknow – Sun Tzu”) or military strategies. Once the livestreams roll, though, things can quickly go off the rails, and often do. Quackity recalled waiting on stage at a podium for the results of Dream SMP’s presidential election. His SWAG2020 running mate, GeorgeNotFound, wasn’t showing up. It turned out he slept through the event.

“We joke about this. This entire Dream SMP lore happened because of GeorgeNotFound,” says Quackity. Abandoned, Quackity formed an impromptu political party with a drunk-acting insurrectionist, Jschlatt, to form SchWAG2020. They won with 46 percent of the popular vote to POG2020’s 45 percent.

Role-playing in online video games is about as old as online video games themselves; In the ’90s, players in role-play multi-user dungeons (RP MUDs) prescribed rules of engagement and constructed elaborate storylines through elaborate, made-up characters, all with text. In early massively multiplayer online role-playing games, players would forego the prescribed plot to leverage avatars’ fashions, emotes, and customizable homes toward communal storytelling. But live video platforms like Twitch and YouTube have reformulated private video game role-play into entertainment, and entertainment into business. It is an art form that has become a bonafide viewing experience, a culture machine, closer in lineage to live theater than Tyler “Ninja” Blevins’ Fortnite trick shots.



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